Vols defense answers questions in season debut
KNOXVILLE — Entering Sunday night’s season opener against Utah State, Tennessee coach Butch Jones said his team was battling the unknowns associated with a young, inexperienced team.
After the game, he and everyone watching knows more about the Vols, with the biggest thing standing out being the improvement on defense.
The Tennessee defensive unit held a supposedly high-powered Aggies offense to less than 100 yards in the first half (151 through three quarters), kept Chuckie Keeton in check into the final period, got interceptions from linebacker A.J. Johnson and cornerback Cam Sutton, recovered a fumble on a kickoff return and didn’t allow Utah State past the 50-yard line until very early in the third quarter of the game.
If Jones had any concerns about the defense, they went away quickly. They proved they could play against a team that won 9 games last season and won a bowl game.
The question now is this — can they continue the trend next week?
But that is a question for next week. This week, the defense was, dare I say dominant, especially on third down.
With the new SEC rule in place allowing music to be played until the center stands over the ball on third down, the aptly dubbed “3rd Down For What” blared over the speakers inside Neyland Stadium. And it fit perfectly for this young club.
The crowd was loud — a far cry from past years. The defense fed off the crowd, and they played with greater energy than I have seen in several years.
The Vols looked to be having fun again. The fans were having fun again. As one national pundit put it, “Tennessee football is fun again.”
After witnessing so many mental miscues, defensive busts and blowout losses against teams with similar talent in recent years, seeing a goose egg on the scoreboard for a visiting team entering the fourth quarter was oddly different.
I realize it’s just one game, but with so much hype for this year’s team and the hunger by the fans to see a winning product on the field, this one game just felt good for so many.
Attending UT games had become more of a chore in the past few years under Derek Dooley, but one can get used to seeing a team at least have fun while playing. It’s something that has been missing for far too long, and I for one am glad to see a little swagger back in Knoxville.
The defense may have lost their shutout in the opening minute of the fourth quarter, but they put together one heck of an opening chapter for the 2014 season.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the second chapter unfolds Saturday.
By Matt Daniels
Tribune Sports Editor